- The Bookseller
Food & drink
Peru has the most extensive menu on the continent and some of the world’s top chefs. Yet mention Peruvian food to most people and the few that have heard of it might think of guinea pig, but the country’s cuisine is about so much more than that. Lima is now one of the top gastronomic capitals of the continent with some world-class restaurants serving the Novo Andina cuisine pioneered by the chef and restaurateur Gastón Acurio.
Even in smaller regional restaurants Peruvian cooking can be very appealing; there’s nothing finer than sitting in a darkened picantería (a traditional local restaurant often serving spicy food) with a steaming plate of chicharrones (fried pork and pork skin), and a mug of chicha de jora, the country’s famous fermented maize beer.
And cuy (guinea pig), be it fried, baked or barbecued, is actually very tasty.
Meat dishes are numerous and varied. Most common are lomo cordon bleu (beef loin steak stuffed with cheese and ham), lomo milanesa (beaten into a thin steak and fried in breadcrumbs), and lomo a lo pobre (fried with an egg on top). Chicken is often served like this or simply roasted. Parilladas (a mixed grill and a restaurant that sells grilled meat) are generally very good.
More interesting dishes include lomo saltado (strips of beef stir-fried with onions, spicy orange peppers, tomatoes and soy sauce, served with rice and fried potatoes), anticucho (beef-heart kebabs cooked on a skewer over hot coals and served with a range of spicy sauces), causa rellena (a lightly spiced potato cake mixed with tuna or chicken), aji de gallina (shredded chicken stewed in a rich, gently spiced cream sauce) and the coronary-inducing chicharrones (deep-fried chunks of pork or pork skin; the original hot pork scratchings).
Most unusual for many foreigners is the tradition of eating cuy, that popular childhood pet, the guinea pig. Considered a delicacy, it’s usually fried or baked, prepared with huarcartay (an aromatic Andean herb), cumin and garlic and tastes a little like duck but with a unique gamey flavour. It is generally served whole, head, paws and all, as if it has just been run over in the traffic and peeled off a car wheel, and can be quite fiddly to eat.
Once scorned by the middle classes as being fit only for the poor peasant farmers, alpaca steak is now a staple on many Novo Andina menus.
Peru has excellent fish that includes congrio (conger eel), corvina (sea bass), lenguado (sole) and shellfish. Try the Peruvian version of fish and chips, jalea (fried whitebait) which is served with fried yuca (cassava or manioc), fried yellow peppers and a dollop of spicy aji sauce, chupe de camarones (traditional creamy prawn chowder), and that famous traditional Peruvian dish, ceviche (see above).
It was Viracocha’s sons who discovered the potato, having been sent to Lake Titicaca by their Creator father to bring back the plants that grew there, so goes the Inca myth. It’s not far from the truth, though, in that research shows that this is where the earliest potatoes evolved. Hunter gatherers learnt to farm the tubers that grew there about 7000 years ago. Some 200 species of wild potato are found in South America and there are now an astounding 5000 varieties cultivated in the Andes. Popular dishes include: causa, made with yellow potatoes, lemons, hard-boiled eggs, olives, sweet corn, sweet potato and cheese and served with an onion sauce; papas a la Huancaina, a cold appetiser of potatoes in a thick, spicy cheese sauce; and papa rellena, where a potato is baked then fried before being stuffed with meat, olives, onions, boiled egg and raisins.
You should also try chuño, freeze-dried potato. It was the Incas who developed freeze-drying as a way of preserving potatoes which were then stored as a reserve if other crops failed. They freeze-dried them by leaving them out on winter’s nights in sub-zero temperatures.
Quinoa used to be highly important within Andean civilizations, second only to the potato. In contemporary times its value is again being recognized because of its high nutritional and protein content, making it an unusually complete foodstuff.
In markets you’ll see some of the amazing range of maize in a variety of colours and sizes that’s available here. Unlike the puny corn found elsewhere, Peruvian corn comprises giant white kernels bursting with flavour and juice. Corn has been planted in Peru for over 3000 years. The ancient farmers achieved a degree of sophistication in the selection and creation of new varieties that adapted to varying terrains and climates. Corn is cooked in a number of ways; on the cob, choclo or choclo con queso (with a piece of cheese), boiled, ground with a pestle and mortar, toasted or fermented into chicha (see p80). You’ll find cornmash pastries (tamales and humitas), savoury or sweet and in a wide range of colours.
Soups are often hearty and filling. Try yacu-chupe, a green soup made from potatoes, cheese, garlic, coriander, peppers, eggs and onions or the pleasantly spiced sopa a la criolla, made with thin noodles, beef hearts and bits of egg and vegetables.
As well as the wide range of Peruvian dishes you’ll find excellent approximations of other cuisines: pasta is often freshly made and Chinese food (Chifa) is usually good.
There’s a wide range of options available for the sweet tooth, and the Peruvian tooth can be very sweet indeed. Most common puddings are picarones (light fried doughnuts with honey) and the jelly-like mazamorra morada (a sweet-tasting dish made from purple maize). When in Lima make sure to try Suspiro de Limeña (see p136), a classic dessert from the city.
In addition to all the standard citrus fruits and recognizable fruits such as bananas, guavas, pineapples, papayas, mangoes and passionfruits there are also four unusual varieties; the custard-ish cherimoya (custard apple), guanabana (soursop), the gloopy granadilla (similar to passionfruit) and the native powdery, peachy lucuma (eggfruit).
Taxes and tipping
Expensive restaurants will add 19% tax to the bill. They may also add a 10% service charge which is meant to go to the waiter meaning that tipping is unnecessary. However, the money often doesn’t reach the people who’ve earned or deserve it so you might want to consider leaving a cash tip as well. In budget or moderate restaurants tipping is normal although not obligatory.
Tea is widely drunk. It is usually served without milk but with sugar and lemon. Herb teas are also popular. Mate de coca made from coca leaves, is readily available in the cafés and restaurants in Cusco and helps to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. Coffee, surprisingly for a coffee-producing country, is pretty poor and is either served as coffee essence, to which you add hot water, or instant coffee. Milk is again served separately. However, there are also plenty of places in Cusco that will now serve you a cappuccino or espresso. Bottled water is sold widely and should be drunk when you aren’t confident of the water source or haven’t had a chance to purify or boil the water yourself (see p91). The usual range of soft drinks is available, with the addition of chicha morada, made from purple maize, and the ubiquitous, home-grown, iridescent Inca Kola, which outsells the imported American equivalent in Peru. Try it just once to discover the sickly sweet, bubblegum flavour.
Peruvian lager is pretty drinkable. There are numerous bottled brands including Arequipeña, Cristal, Cusqueña and Pilsener that are all brewed to about 5% alcohol content and all taste quite similar. For a change try the sweetish dark ale Cusqueña Malta.
Peruvian wine is yet to reach the same heights as its South American neighbours, and lack of infrastructure and poor marketing probably mean international sales are a way off; you’re better off sticking to Chilean or Argentinean wine instead. If you are feeling adventurous try the Tacama, Ocucaje or Vista Allegre red or white wines from Ica.
Chicha is a maize wine that dates back to the time of the Incas but is still drunk today in the rural Andes. Nicknamed ‘the champagne of the Incas’, and made from a specific type of yellow maize called jora, it actually tastes like a type of cloudy pale cider. The name derives from the Spanish chichal, meaning ‘saliva’ or ‘to spit’, which refers to the Andean people’s early methods of production: for centuries they found saliva an effective means of converting starches in the maize grains into fermentable sugars. Nowadays sugar is used to kick-start the process. Houses that brew and sell chicha can be identified by the red plastic bags hung outside on the end of long poles, not unlike pub signs.
Pisco is a potent clear spirit distilled from grapes. Usually drunk as part of a Pisco Sour cocktail, it can be deceptively strong. Chileans consider it their national drink as well and there is plenty of friction between the two countries over the origin of the drink.